Local Flavours: The Food Of The Jews Of Cochin
Image Credit: Instagram/cheftzac

India has seen five types of Jewish communities: the Jews of Cochin, Baghdadi Jews, the Bene Israeli, the Bene Menashe and the Bene Ephraim. The Jews of Cochin came to India around 175 BCE, after fleeing the Kingdom of Judah, where they were being oppressed by the Greeks. They arrived in what was then Cranganore and settled there. Today, less than 3,000 Jews remain in India, of which only a couple of Cochini Jewish families are a part. The Jews of Cochin form the smallest community of the diaspora. 

Food plays a big part in the lives of the Jews of Cochin or Cochinim, as they are called in Israel. The Jews of Cochin landed on the Malabar Coast in search of spices and controlled the Malabar spice trade for many centuries. They included these spices in their culinary practices. 

The main flavour profile of the food of the Jews of Cochin became piquant, with the addition of tamarind along with coconut and curry leaves. Proximity to the coast made it possible to incorporate fish as per the laws of kosher. The staple food was unpolished rice, which also manifested as dosa, idli, appam and puttu. These continue to be eaten in homes of Cochinim across Israel just as they are in Kerala. Cochin Jewish coconut rice is a delicacy, made by cooking rice in coconut milk and adding spices, or shredding coconut over cooked rice and adding spices. 

It was in Cochin that the importance of coconut milk as an alternative to regular milk was discovered, so that it could be used with meat by Jews who wanted to keep kosher. Nevertheless, the Cochinim wait at least six hours after they eat meat to consume dairy. 

Signature foods include appam, mainly eaten for breakfast. Appam was a product of Cochini Jewish homes and made popular by the Syrian Christians. Kubbah, made with ground meat, bulgar, onions and spices and usually served with turmeric rice, became popular in the 17th century in Cochin.

The pastel has been a favourite with the Jews of Cochin, too. Pastel is Portuguese for crisp pastry, filled with different ingredients. Bureka, pastel’s cousin, can be found everywhere in Israel. It is made with filo dough, filled with meat, cheese or vegetables, garnished with sesame seeds. Cochini homes prepare bureka with cheese, while pastels never use cheese. 

Main dishes from the Cochini Jewish menu include red beef curry, ellachel (chicken curry), and chuttulli meen (fish, pan-fried with onion paste). The Cochin Jewish cutlet is also popular; it’s like a schnitzel, made by dipping chicken breast in eggs and crumbs and then deep frying. 

As is the case with most Jews, halwa is the best kosher dessert for Cochin Jews as it uses no dairy or meat. Rice and banana dumplings with cardamom powder called unniyappam are eaten the day before Yom Kippur. Hindus in Kerala prepare them to offer to temples. Cochini Jews fast for 27 hours on Yom Kippur. They break the fast with ural, which is a wheat pudding similar to halwa. 

Mooli is a drink served in homes where someone has died. It’s a hot drink made by boiling coriander and cumin seeds in water and adding cinnamon, cardamom and cloves. 

Ora Farchy, born and raised in Moshav Shahar in southern Israel and now living in Houston, where she is a Hebrew teacher, has told Bala Menon of Cafe Dissensus: “Although physical Cochin has receded from us when we consider concepts of time and space, the food has remained with us and, I think, will remain part of our consciousness and identity forever.”